The World Health Organisation on Monday said the new coronavirus epidemic had "peaked" in China but warned that a surge in cases elsewhere was "deeply concerning" and all countries should prepare for a "potential pandemic".
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the peak in China occurred between January 23 and February 2 and the number of new cases there "has been declining steadily since then".
"This virus can be contained," he told reporters in Geneva, praising China for helping to prevent an even bigger spread of the disease through unprecedented lockdowns and quarantines in or near the outbreak's epicentre.
An acceleration of cases in other parts of the world has prompted similar drastic measures. Italy has locked down 11 towns and South Korea ordered the entire 2.5 million residents of the city of Daegu to remain indoors.
It also caused falls of more than three-percent in several European stock markets -- with Milan plunging 5.4 percent -- and a boost for safe-haven gold amid fears the epidemic could hit a global economic recovery.
The spread of the disease -- officially known as Covid-19 -- continued unabated with Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman announcing their first cases on Monday.
China also continued its preventive measures against the virus, on Monday postponing its agenda-setting annual parliament meeting for the first time since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
In Iran, the death toll climbed on Monday by four to 12 -- the highest number for any country outside China.
But there were concerns the situation might be worse than officially acknowledged. The semi-official ILNA news agency quoted one local lawmaker in hard-hit Qom -- a religious centre -- who said 50 people had died there.
The Iranian government denied the report, and pledged transparency.
Even so, authorities have only reported 64 infections in Iran, an unusually small number that would mean an extremely high mortality rate.
In China, 2,592 people have died out of 77,000 infections.
Michael Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies programme, said a team from the UN agency would be arriving in Iran on Tuesday.
But he cautioned against drawing any conclusions about the mortality rate. Iran "may only be detecting severe cases" because the epidemic was still at an early stage, he said.
"We need to understand the exact dynamics of what has happened in Iran, but clearly there have been gatherings for religious festivals, and then people coming and then moving afterwards," he said.
South Korea has also seen a rapid rise in infections since a cluster sprouted in a religious sect in Daegu last week.
South Korea reported more than 200 infections and two more deaths on Monday, bringing the total cases to more than 830 -- by far the most outside China.
Eight people have died from the virus there, and President Moon Jae-in over the weekend raised the country's virus alert to the highest "red" level.
As part of the containment efforts, school holidays were extended nationally while the 2.5 million people of Daegu were told to remain indoors.
Authorities in Hong Kong announced that from Tuesday it would not allow arrivals from South Korea other than returning residents.
Mongolia earlier announced it would not allow flights from South Korea to land. (AFP)
WHO says Covid-19 has peaked in China
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